The judge was from Wales, and the weather might as well have been. But the dogs didn't care about the wind or the wet. Their minds were on the sheep.
With gusts up to 50 mph and a distinct chill in the damp spring air, the second annual Steppingstone Sheep Dog Trial finished yesterday with an elegant display of a centuries-old farming craft that combines canine instinct and human cunning.
Every 10 minutes, a border collie would dash 325 yards across the green Harford County hills, obeying its handler's arcane calls and whistles, toward the target: three terrified sheep. They looked as if they'd rather be grazing peacefully in the neighboring field with the rest of the flock, but no one asked their opinion.
Alternately racing in circles and sinking into the grass, the dog would move the sheep through a series of gates and pen them up briefly in a small corral.
The handler, waving a long crook, would direct the drama, moving from his post only to shut and open the corral and to team with the dog in the final exercise, separating one sheep from the other two.
Jack Chamberlain, who spent four decades working a herd of 700 ewes and turned that experience into a title as "Captain of England" -- national champion sheep dog handler -- judged it all through the windshield of a gray pickup truck. He'd beep his horn to signal an end to a run, dictate the score to his assistant and direct the next handler to loose his dog.
Steve Paxton-Hill, 60, and his wife, Kathryn, 45, run the trial on the grounds of the Steppingstone Farm Museum near Havre de Grace, a spectacular spot above the Susquehanna River in a field bordered by locust trees and gray stone walls. He disdains dog-show enthusiasts who only care about looks.
"We're certainly not interested in the shape of the dog's face or the color of its ears," he said. "We breed for brains."
The four-day competition drew 150 border collies from as far as Ontario, Canada, and Florida. Their 80 handlers traded dog lore, ogled puppies and renewed friendly rivalries.
The top prize each day was $450 and a ceramic plate painted with dogs and sheep by Kathryn Paxton-Hill, whose circuitous route to this sport began when she and her husband were art students at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
He is a sculptor who once won the top prize at Baltimore's Artscape; she earned a master's in abstract painting. Together, more than 20 years ago, they renovated an old farmhouse in Susquehanna State Park, where they started an interior decorating business, raised a daughter and took on a herd of sheep.
Eventually, Kathryn Paxton-Hill says, "I got tired of being the dog."
She didn't like risking getting trampled each time she delivered a feed bucket to rowdy sheep.
Steve Paxton-Hill, who grew up in England, knew about border collies. His mother had owned one that, in lieu of sheep, would exercise its irrepressible herding instinct on the children at the primary school next door.
So they bought a dog. The obsession grew. Now they have 105 sheep, six border collies and a business breeding and training the dogs.
`Leaps and bounds'
While the Paxton-Hills are farmers who got dogs for their sheep, many handlers today are hobbyists who get sheep for their dogs.
"It's growing by leaps and bounds," said Steve Paxton-Hill. "Twenty years ago, there were maybe 25 trials per year in the U.S. Now there are probably 250, and people are lining up to get into them."
The Steppingstone trial, one of three in Maryland, was oversubscribed on the day it opened for registration, he said.
Consider Amanda Milliken, who runs a cardiac testing company in Kingston, Ontario, but abandons it regularly to pursue her hobby. Traveling in a camper equipped with a cappuccino maker, she tours sheep dog trials in California every spring and runs one in Kingston each August.
A two-time Canadian national champion, Milliken competed with Bart, a 2-year-old male, and Eucher, a 10-year-old female. Hazel, 14, is retired from competition but was there to watch. "She likes to critique the younger dogs," Milliken said.
"It's a wonderfully intense sport," she said. "It takes the primitive" -- a dog's instincts -- "and makes it very sophisticated."
Like any sport, dog trials come with jargon. The dog's approach to the sheep is "the lift." The movement of the sheep through gates to the handler is "the fetch." The separation of a single sheep from the rest -- a challenge to the sheep's love for safety in numbers -- is "the shed."
Weak on `presence'
"She has a little too much eye, and she doesn't have a very strong presence," said handler Mary Felegy of her dog Tam, a 7-year-old female.
Translation: The dog makes too strong eye contact with the sheep, often freezing them in place. But Tam doesn't have the authority to back it up.
"The sheep look at her and think, `We can beat this dog,'" says Felegy of Congers, N.Y. Her dogs work in her "goose management" company, which contracts to harass unwanted geese until they fly away.